Candace Parker kept her mental checklist ready.
It served as an easy way for the Sparks forward to measure what she anticipated would happen the day of her return, after her maternity leave kept her sidelined throughout training camp and the first eight games of the season.
And as Parker expected, her pregame checklist (including waking up on time, listening to Jay-Z, stretching and staying attentive before entering the game) pales to the checklist she’ll want to master after the Sparks’ 104-89 loss Sunday to the Phoenix Mercury.
Parker may have told the 9,872 fans at Staples Center that “it’s great to be back” 53 days after delivering her first child, Lailaa.
But her debut of six points in 18 minutes 41 seconds off the bench is just the beginning of her recovery.
The Sparks’ first home loss was deemed by forward Tina Thompson as “a lost opportunity,” given the Sparks (3-6) are winless on the road and face a six-game road stretch throughout July.
“It’s different,” Parker said of last season, which ended with league MVP and rookie of the year honors.
“Last year I was able to rely more on my athleticism and jumping over people. Now I actually have to box out.
“The speed, I’m not able to go past people anymore. I’m going to have to be more fundamental until that comes back.”
Coach Michael Cooper reminded reporters that Parker hadn’t played competitive basketball in 10 months and that her recovery will take more time.
“I wish Michael Jordan could give birth and come out and play,” Cooper said. “The only thing he had to do was fight a cold and then throw up against Utah [in the 1998 NBA Finals].
“He’s not half the woman that Candace is.”
After allowing Phoenix to outrebound them, 40-31, convert 23 points in transition and make double-digit runs in the third and fourth quarter, the Sparks plan to tighten up on defense and reevaluate their ability to box out.
As a team that has already played nine games and had their coach question their effort, the Sparks know their own rebuilding effort can’t take too much time.
“We cant keep patching up the leaks,” said Sparks forward DeLisha Milton-Jones, who tied her season high with 15 points but was scoreless in the second half.
“We need to re-pipe the system with copper piping to make sure there is no more damage later on. Right now we’re suffering a lot of water damage and our foundation is slowly cracking. But we have to find ways to get wins, bottom line.”
The Sparks couldn’t get a win Sunday, despite having three others score in double digits, including Thompson (17 points), Betty Lennox (17) and Marie Ferdinand-Harris (13).
The Sparks, who ranked third in team defense before the game, appeared on their way to locking in a strong defensive performance after holding Phoenix to 28.6% shooting in the second quarter.
Noelle Quinn’s buzzer beater gave the Sparks a 51-45 halftime lead and capped off an 8-2 run, leading Cooper to conclude that “We came out with a lot of energy in the first half and I thought we’d come out in the second half with the same energy.”
Instead, the Mercury showed why it leads the league in team offense.
Phoenix ended the third quarter with an 81-70 lead thanks to a 10-4 run in the last 2:14.
The rallying continued in the fourth with Phoenix scoring 11 unanswered points.
The Mercury shot 47.1% and had four players reach double figures, including Cappie Pondexter (21), Diana Taurasi (20), DeWanna Bonner (17) and Temeka Johnson (12).
The Sparks hope Sunday’s performance was just a reflection of the team adjusting to Parker’s return than any long-term problem.
“We have a new body and different style, but we welcome it,” Thompson said of Parker’s return.
“If we have to take this one loss to get her comfortable, we’ll do so for future wins.”